Psst! It’s the best time to be alive

World, we have a problem. The year we’re leaving behind was the safest, healthiest, happiest year in human history but you don’t believe it, writes Scott Gilmore today on Maclean’s.

The world has never been more peaceful, there has never been less poverty, and our societies have never been healthier.

So what’s the problem? Why do we feel as if things have never been worse?

Your mind is likely filled with thoughts of recent terrorist attacks, racial tensions and economic crises. Unfortunately, we are trapped in this pessimistic quagmire by both our brains and our smartphones. In evolutionary terms, we have only just climbed out of the trees, and our bodies are still wired to survive in the wild. As Dan Gardner, the author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, has eloquently written, our natural fight-or-flight instincts persist. When we were foraging on the savannah, the sight of one of our own being eaten by a lion scorched a lesson into our brain: fear lions. Now, the TV images of terrorist attacks on the other side of the ocean produce the same reaction. Our minds cannot help themselves. Stories and images influence us far more than numbers.

Which brings us to the second problem: information technology. Humans have never been exposed to as many of these stories and images as we are now. From the moment we wake up, a flood of radio reports, newspaper columns, TV dramas, Twitter links and Buzzfeed lists wash over us. Once, you needed to personally watch someone in your clan teach you a lesson about not petting lions. Now, there are 496,000 YouTube videos of lion attacks viewable from the phone in your pocket. It is no wonder we remain nervous wrecks.

This creates a perverse dilemma, which may actually lead to our own demise as a species. When we fixate on visceral but unlikely threats like terrorism or child abductions, we ignore the intangible but genuinely dangerous risks such as climate change. Sadly, our political class has discovered this bug in our code, and happily exploits it. Cynically they know the minuscule threat of Ebola carriers is more important to you than the inevitable threat of climate change.

  • Jack

    No, it’s still violent. I love these articles with statistics as they have a tendency to leave out the population difference before and after. People living in poverty die much quicker than those with access to legitimate healthcare. People have become more transient, leaving no trace of who they really were, their origins and what their intentions were in the first place. They travel with several aliases making them more transparent. They live in houses that have been foreclosed and scooped by the thrifty realtor who is also part of the network of employment. They move in, traumatize coworkers and neighbors and in a blink of an eye they are gone.

    I have more faith in the reactions of nature than I do the reactions of people any day.

    • Nobody is saying that there aren’t the ills of the world. That’s not his point. But — and I certainly see this as a member of the media — its portrayal is quite often out of a greater context.

      We really don’t have a significant threat of being victims of terrorism; it’s just been portrayed that way. That’s why we gave up so many civil liberties in the interest of terror.

      Crime isn’t really the threat it’s portrayed as; it’s just that — especially at this time of the year — crime gets significant attention because there’s nothing else to cover, the newspeople say.

      And these things matter as we learned in the economy when if you told people things were awful, they’d stop spending money and we’d end up in the very thing that we hoped to avoid. That’s why Alfred Kahn once used the word “banana” to describe the chances of a recession because he knew if he said “recession,” the media would blare RECESSION and people would hear RECESSION and — voila! — we’d be in one.

      The essay isn’t a call for inaction. It isn’t a call not to care. It isn’t a call to ignore the world’s ills.

      It’s a call not to despair because people who despair give up and nothing changes.

      It’s a call not to give in to the politicians and others who depend on a society that is desperate and fearful.

      • L. Foonimin

        very well said Bob, very well said …

  • kennedy

    It’s funny how frequently perception differs from reality. Things we experience or observe directly become far more important than information we read or gather intellectually.

    People worry about gun violence. We see the sensational images and video. Yet we give little thought to suicide which kills 3X more people each year. Lung cancer kills 10X more people than gun homicide, and it could be argued that smokers are knowingly harming themselves.

  • Jack

    I would think that immediate personal observation trumps the illusion of the media.
    People do not give up, they get tired of reaching out for help only to get no help at all.
    “We’re all in this together,” said the captain of the sinking ship.

    • Well look at it this way. You know when it was -50 earlier this year and some politician asked “where’s your global warming now?” and it turned out to be the hottest year in the planet’s history? Basically, you get two choices which facts you believe: the ones you think are true? Or the ones that actually are?

  • Jack

    Mr. Bob and Ms Kennedy, what on earth would you write about if they took away your laptop and cell phone?

    • Again, the essay isn’t about taking away your laptop and cellphone.

      But, tonight at midnight I’m walking away from Twitter.

      • Jack

        Now you’re talking!…writing!

  • John

    I blame the news. . . sort of. I blame the need for the news to get high ratings.

    This does confirm my suspicions that as a whole, we’re in better shape than ever, but there’s a lot knee-jerk reactions to minuscule, but dramatic threats.

    I watched a documentary a while ago on the KKK. It turns out, there weren’t that many lynchings carried out by the group (one is really too many), but the act was so horrific and so public that it had a disproportionate impact of instilling terror into regular people who might have otherwise stood up to their propaganda and general awfulness. (Like Bob said, a human reaction that politicians are only too happy to capitalize on.)

    I found the whole thing fascinating, for the same reasons I wonder about the news today sensationalizing Ebola, terrorism, gang signs, etc. Those things have such a dramatic impact on a small portion of the population, but the ripples of those impacts are so much greater than in the past because the internet amplifies them out to everyone, and everyone can be scared instead of just the relative few who are actually in danger (Ebola is probably not the best example, given what is known about its incubation period and contagiousness combined with rapid transport around the world).